TOLEDO, Ohio — The Cincinnati Bearcats are undefeated no more.
Cincinnati, No. 21 in the BCS standings, fell to Toledo 29-23 and dropped to 5-1 on the season. It was a game that wasn’t as wild as advertised but ended with Toledo students storming the field and Rockets coach Matt Campbell, the youngest coach in the FBS, hugging friends and strangers amidst the masses.
Usually high-flying Toledo (7-1) did it without an offensive touchdown, scoring five Jeremiah Detmer field goals, an interception return and a punt return. Toledo trailed just once, at 20-19 in the third quarter, and that didn’t last long as Bernard Reedy returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown.
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Toledo followed that with an onside kick. These Rockets play with the aggression of a Mid-American Conference underdog and have the horses to win the kind of game they won Saturday night.
“I’d put us in the Top 25,” Toledo safety Jermaine Robinson said afterwards. “Why not?”
Robinson’s 75-yard interception return touchdown in the first quarter made it 10-0 and stood as the game’s biggest play until Reedy scored in the return game for the third consecutive week. Toledo had been scoring better than 44 points per game over the last month but had to manufacture one by winning the turnover and time of possession battles.
“We had to battle,” Campbell said. “Winning without scoring an offensive touchdown says everything about this football team right now.”
Mostly, it says that Toledo can be complete. The defense gave up more than 60 points in back-to-back nationally-televised games on its home field last November, and that perception of Toledo as a defense-optional, track-meet team still sticks. Beating previously unbeaten Cincinnati and holding the Bearcats to two touchdowns under their scoring average says the Rockets belong in the discussion with Ohio’s other power programs.
Ohio State and Ohio remain undefeated, the Buckeyes at 8-0 and the Bobcats at 7-0. Toledo is 7-1, Kent State is 6-1 and Cincinnati is 5-1 heading into its showdown next Friday at Louisville. There’s a lot of sorting still to do, but Toledo circled this one as its ticket to getting on the marquee and then went and got it.
“Being in Ohio, you see the other schools and what they’re doing,” Robinson said. “But we do preach just focusing on the next game. Our schedule is covered up — only one game, only the next game. Each week we cut a piece off.
“In the back of our heads, we knew this game was (big), but we knew we couldn’t do anything about it in September. We were waiting on tonight. This was our chance to puff our chest out a little bit.”
Cincinnati’s defense is as good as advertised, even though the Bearcats had to play without maybe their best player, injured senior defensive end Walter Stewart. The Bearcats struggled offensively and to sustain momentum in general.
Cincinnati, for example, ran for 190 yards in the first half but trailed 16-13. Quarterback Munchie Legaux was erratic. He made more throws like the last one that Jordan Haden intercepted to seal it than the 25-yard touchdown he threw to the hero of the Virginia Tech win, Damon Julian, in the third quarter. Legaux finished 15-of-36 for 227 yards.
“Anytime you give up a kick return for a touchdown, you’re in trouble,” Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. “Our hats are off to Toledo. I have a lot of respect for their program. We held their explosive offense out of the end zone but they made the plays when they needed to.”
Toledo is 5-1 all time against Top-25-ranked opponents in the Glass Bowl. The one loss was to No. 4 Boise State last year, a loss that came six days after Toledo lost at Ohio State on the final drive and before the Rockets went to Syracuse and lost on a call that the Big East and all involved later acknowledged was wrong.
That 2011 Toledo team won nine games, and then-coach Tim Beckman rode that success to the job at Illinois. In stepped Campbell, back came a bunch of talent and an experienced team finally got that close, big game to go its way Saturday night.
This was a program win, one that will be talked about for years and one that stamps Toledo possibly as a Top-25 team but certainly as one that’s earned whatever attention it gets.
“Our defense has gotten tremendously better,” Campbell said. “We’re tackling better. Cincinnati has great athletes all over and we matched them. We tackled them.
“We’ve been down this road so many times. We’ve been in big games, we’ve been in these games and we’ve been close. We haven’t beaten the Ohio States and Boise States. Tonight was all about poise. Tonight, we finished that big game.”